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Mexico Security Memo: The Future of Methamphetamine in Guatemala

14 MINS READJan 12, 2012 | 21:39 GMT
Stratfor

Quantifying Meth Production

A new year has begun, and some statistics from 2011 may indicate the direction in which Mexico's methamphetamine trade is headed for 2012. In December, Mexican authorities reportedly sized 675 tons of methylamine, a key precursor chemical for the manufacture of methamphetamine, from a shipment bound for Guatemala. According to AP, the total amount of precursor chemicals confiscated by Mexican authorities in 2011 was 1,200 tons, and much of this was methylamine. Meanwhile, AP also reported that Guatemalan authorities seized some 1,600 tons of precursor chemicals in 2011 — up from 400 tons the previous year. The reports did not cite where they received their information.

These statistics — indeed, most statistics — are inherently unreliable. Whether by duplicity, accident or compulsion, the sources of such statistics can misrepresent data, so the data should be scrutinized carefully. Dubious statistics notwithstanding, there has been a demonstrable increase in Guatemala-bound precursor chemicals. But large seizures of precursor chemicals alone do not necessarily indicate the widespread proliferation of methamphetamine production in Guatemala. Many other factors need to be considered to determine the extent to which Guatemala has become a methamphetamine producer.

Several labs have been shut down within the past month alone. On Dec. 13, authorities from the Guatemalan National Civil Police raided a methamphetamine lab in San Jose Buena Vista, San Marcos department, where they found 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds) of methamphetamine and a substantial amount of precursor chemicals. On Jan. 4, the Guatemalan army clashed with gunmen smuggling 65 barrels of acetone (also used in the production of methamphetamine) in the Zetas stronghold of La Libertad, Peten department. Then on Jan. 11, Guatemalan police took down a synthetic drug lab in El Olvidio, San Marcos department, in the country's northwest. These operations are just as indicative of the emergence of methamphetamine in the country as precursor chemical seizures — if not more so.

Exactly how much this production will increase remains unclear. Media agencies have reported that a given amount methylamine produces an equivalent amount of methamphetamine; in other words, 10 tons of methylamine yields 10 tons of street-ready product. This conclusion is inaccurate. The efficiency of chemical reactions should not be measured by a weight-to-weight ratio due to the different molecular weights of the starting material and the finished product. Methylamine is used in just one stage of the methamphetamine synthesis; the media likely reported the 1:1 ratio because there is 1 equivalent of methylamine used in that step. Also, a 1:1 ratio of methylamine to methamphetamine as reported would imply a 100 percent yield — a perfect reaction — at every stage. This is nearly impossible in organic chemistry.

Moreover, methylamine typically is dissolved in an alcohol (it is a gas in pure form), making a solution that is only partly methylamine. Lastly, the synthesis of methamphetamine is what is known as a racemic process; it automatically yields two products, only one of which is the active component in methamphetamine.

There are, of course, other explanations for the increased shipments. Methylamine is a common precursor chemical in organic chemistry. It is used to synthesize pharmaceuticals, pesticides and other chemical products and is the building block for commercially available compounds found in agricultural chemicals, animal nutrients, catalysts, electronics, explosives, fuel additives and paper treatments. Methylamine also can be used to remove sulfur in industrial applications. Notably, methylamine is a controlled substance in many countries; Guatemala, Mexico the United States and others regulate the chemical, making it an attractive black or gray market commodity. It also has long shelf life when properly stored (especially what rendered into salt or liquid form), so it is possible that Guatemalan manufacturers are stockpiling the chemical at gray- or black-market prices, especially if methylamine will be better regulated in countries like China.

What we know about cartel activity in the area along western Mexico and Guatemala suggests that much of the methylamine confiscated belonged to the Sinaloa Federation. However, the Peten department seizure indicates that Los Zetas are likely involved as well.

The move to Guatemala has two possible explanations. Mexico's cartels may be voluntarily relocating the facilities where they produce methamphetamine. When pressure is applied on one area of drug production, cartels move production to a destination with less law enforcement. Guatemala has a significantly smaller security presence than Mexico, and its police and military are just as corrupt. The increased confiscation of precursor chemicals could mean Mexican authorities are getting better at their jobs, but the fact remains that more and more shipments of precursor chemicals are destined for Mexico's southern neighbor.

Otherwise, the cartels could be expanding their operations as most successful businesses tend to do. Control of transportation networks, especially ports, is critical for business because maritime shipping accounts for the majority of illegal trade worldwide.

The significance for Guatemala is notable. The Central American country has long been a transit corridor for cocaine from South America into Mexico, but it is now becoming a drug producer — even if all the precursor chemicals found there are not immediately contributing to the drug trade. Without U.S. or Mexican assistance, the Guatemalan government will be unable to control any increased production of methamphetamine — or the violence, corruption and increased use that will accompany it.

Cooperation in Michoacan?

On Jan. 9, 13 murder victims were found in Zitacuaro, Michoacan state. All of the victims bore signs of torture and sustained gunshot wounds to the back of the head. Two narcomantas addressed to someone named "El Guerro," reportedly from the city of Huetamo, were left at the scene. At least one of the narcomantas reportedly was signed "FMZ."

The signature is the most interesting aspect of the incident because it may be evidence of cooperation between Los Zetas and La Familia Michoacana. While it is not proof positive of a partnership, such an alliance would benefit both groups. LFM has been severely degraded by the Knights Templar and the Sinaloa Federation, and any remaining members would need external protection and support for survival. The alliance would give Los Zetas a presence in Michoacan state, which gives them access the Pacific coast and, thus, shipments of methamphetamine precursor chemicals. It also allows Los Zetas to challenge the Sinaloa Federation from the south.

It is possible that the alliance — if there is an alliance — is not a new development. Rumors of the relationship surfaced after the June 2011 arrest of LFM leader Jose "El Chango" de Jesus Mendez. As such, questions remain as to when the relationship began and how much autonomy the residual elements of LFM actually have.

Dec. 13

  • Guerrero state Gov. Angel Heladio Aguirre Rivero fired state prosecutor Alberto Lopez Rosas, Public Security Secretariat (SSP) Director Ramon Almonte Borja and Public Security Secretariat Deputy Director Miguel Arreola Ibarria following the murder of two students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal School of Ayotzinapa. Aguirre asked the Mexican Attorney General's Office to take over the investigation into the murders because municipal and federal law enforcement officials were involved in the confrontation leading to the students' deaths.

Dec. 14

  • Soldiers from the 10th Military Zone discovered unmarked graves on the outskirts of Durango, Durango state. Ten bodies were recovered from the graves.
  • SSP officers arrested five individuals on the Hermosillo-Chihuahua Highway in Hermosillo, Sonora state. The individuals, who were transporting 241 kilograms (531 pounds) of marijuana and one kilogram of marijuana seed, said the shipment originated in Yecora and was destined for Magdalena de Kino.

Dec. 15

  • Chihuahua Unified Police Chief Julian David Rivera Breton resigned from his post, allegedly over health concerns. Days prior to the resignation, three narcomantas were posted in Ciudad Chihuahua threatening his life. Rivera previously served as the Director of the Municipal Police in Ciudad Juarez but resigned from that position after being threatened by criminal groups.
  • Several security officers for PEMEX's exploration and production subsidiary were ambushed while on patrol between the San Fernando and Francisco I. Madero villages in Tepic, Nayarit state. An Apache helicopter was deployed to locate the assailants, but all of the gunmen involved in the attack escaped.

Dec. 16

  • Online activist collective Anonymous hacked the Guerrero state Attorney General Office's website in response to the murder of two students from the Raul Isidro Burgos Normal School of Ayotzinapa.
  • Authorities recently arrested Gerardo "El Con" Rodriguez Perez in the Modulos de Otay sector of Centenario District in Tijuana, Baja California state. Rodriguez led the enforcer group of Alfredo "El Aquiles" Arteaga Gonzalez, a Sinaloa Federation operator. He is also believed to have been in charge of drug sales in Modulos de Otay.
  • Authorities seized 69 kilograms of cocaine from a shipping container in the port city of Manzanillo, Colima state. The shipment arrived on the NYK Maria, a Panamanian-flagged ship that departed from Guayaquil, Ecuador.

Dec. 17

  • Mexican soldiers discovered a synthetic drug lab during a reconnaissance operation by El Cedro, a village near Culiacan, Sinaloa state. The soldiers seized 62 kilograms of solid methamphetamine, 85 liters of liquid methamphetamine, and 100 kilograms of precursor chemicals.
  • Some 36 gunmen attacked the Mexican army while on a patrol in Michoacan state's Tierra Caliente region. Six gunmen were killed and two soldiers were injured in the attack. The soldiers then found a nearby cartel camp and seized four AK-47s, two AR-15s, two .38 caliber handguns, more than 1,000 rounds of ammunition and around 20 grenades.
  • Soldiers arrested one individual in Tayahua, Zacatexas state, and confiscated four rifles, a 40 mm grenade launcher, 75 magazines, 1,243 rounds of ammunition, nine tactical radios and eight tactical vests.

Dec. 18

  • An army patrol was attacked by a group of armed individuals in the La Yesca region of Nayarit state. One individual was killed in the attack.
  • Authorities recovered the charred remains of two individuals from a pickup truck in Vista Hermosa, Michoacan state.
  • PEMEX Physical Security Personnel sealed off an illegal siphoning point on a pipeline in General Bravo, Nuevo Leon state.
  • The Secretariat of National Defense (SEDENA) announced that 43 individuals were arrested and 21 kidnapping victims from Central America were freed during operations in Tamaulipas state.

Dec. 19

  • Two individuals were arrested after they were caught attempting to sell weapons on a street corner in the Popular Division of Pabellon de Arteaga, Aguascalientes state.
  • A group of gunmen traveling in an SUV killed two men in the Union Modelo neighborhood of Guadalupe, Nuevo Leon state.
  • Authorities recovered the bodies of six murder victims in the cities of Jiutepec, Temixco, and Xochitepec, Morelos state.

Dec. 20

  • Three unidentified murder victims were recovered from the trunk of a stolen SUV left at a residence in the Jardines de Cuernavaca neighborhood of Cuernavaca, Morelos state. All three victims were bound and gagged and two were in their underwear.

Dec. 21

  • Two narcomantas with messages directed at Mexican President Felipe Calderon and Drug Enforcement Administration agents were posted in the Roma neighborhood of Ciudad Juarez, Chihuahua state.
  • Soldiers dismantled a synthetic drug lab near Los Cedros, a village in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, and seized 600 kilograms of solid methamphetamine, 600 liters of liquid methamphetamine and thousands of kilograms of chemical agents. No arrests were made in conjunction with the dismantling of this drug lab.

Dec. 23

  • Multiple clashes between police and gunmen were reported throughout Cuernavaca, Morelos state. In the first incident, two police officers were disarmed by a group of gunmen. Police reinforcements responded to the incident and attempted to stop the gunmen, during which the two disarmed officers were wounded. The gunmen escaped, but three were later killed during clashes with authorities in a nearby neighborhood.

Dec. 24

  • Authorities announced the recovery of five murder victims in the cities of Torreon and Saltillo, Coahuila state. Two decapitated bodies were recovered in Torreon and three victims were found in the trunk of a car after a confrontation with state police in Saltillo. No arrested were made.
  • Durango state SSP Director Jose Luis Cervantes Murrieta was killed when gunmen intercepted his car in Santiago Papasquiaro, Durango state.
  • Authorities found a man's body in a car outside Durango, Durango state. The victim had been strangled.

Dec. 25

  • Authorities found 13 bodies in a truck in Tampico, Tamaulipas state. Narcomantas found at the scene reportedly alluded to cartel rivalry.
  • A woman's body was found on the shoulder of the Parral Highway in Ocampo, Durango state. The victim had sustained gunshot wounds to the head and chest.

Dec. 26

  • Seven State Unified Police chiefs reportedly were fired in Chihuahua, Chihuahua state. While their names were not disclosed, reports said they were former high-ranking military officials with close ties to Julian David Rivera Breton, the Chihuahua Unified Police Chief who resigned from his position on Dec 15.
  • Federal police at Mexico City International Airport arrested a man who had 2.8 kilograms of cocaine taped to his body. The man arrived on a flight from Lima, Peru.
  • Federal police seized nearly 100 kilograms of marijuana at the cargo area of a shipping company at Mexico City International Airport. According to the shipping manifest, the order originated in Oaxaca and was to be delivered in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state.

Dec. 27

  • Authorities announced that authorities seized nearly 329 metric tons of methylamine during two incidents at the port of Lazaro Cardenas, in Michoacan state. Both shipments departed from Shanghai, China, and were destined for Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.

Dec. 28

  • At least eight bodies were found in three unmarked graves in Linares, a town 78 miles of Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state.

Dec. 29

  • Some 120 metric tons of mono-methylene from Shanghai, China, were seized at the port of Lazaro Cardenas, Michoacan state. The shipment was bound for Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.

Dec. 30

  • Municipal police arrested alleged La Linea leader Julio Cesar Perez, also known as Arturo Bautista and Javier Gonzalez, during an operation following the assassination of the owner of a local gym. The owner was shot and killed Dec. 28 for refusing to pay extortion money. Information provided by gunmen detained after the event led to the arrest of Perez and his lieutenant.
  • The Mexican army clashed with members of the Knights Templar in two incidents in Michoacan state. Soldiers killed three cartel gunmen in Buenavista Tomatlan and three others in La Yerbabuena.
  • Media agencies released a video-recorded message from masked individuals claiming to be members of the Gulf cartel. In the video, the spokesman denounced attacks against innocent people and the government before threatening the leader of Los Zetas.

Dec. 31

  • Federal police arrested Ramiro "El Ramy" Rendon Rivera in Culiacan, Sinaloa state, on suspicion of smuggling firearms and ammunition into Mexico. Previous investigations alleged that Rendon was one of the principal weapons distributors for the Sinaloa Federation, according to a press release from the SSP.
  • A former mayor of Cuernavaca, Morelos state, Porfirio Flores Ayala, was found dead in a pool at his home. Authorities said there was evidence that Flores was killed prior to being in the pool.
  • At least two gunmen opened fire on a bar in Torreon, Coahuila state, wounding at least eight individuals.

Jan. 2

  • Two gunmen traveling in a truck clashed with police officers in Torreon, Coahuila state. The shootout left two dead.

Jan. 3

  • Three workers at a warehouse in Hidalgo del Parral, Chihuahua state, were shot and killed by men traveling in an SUV.
  • The Mexican army captured members of a Los Zetas cell in Matamoros, Coahuila state, while patrolling the Torreon-Saltillo highway, according to a SEDENA statement.
  • A shootout between gunmen in San Ignacio, Sinaloa state, left three dead and two injured.
  • A group of gunmen killed two men in front of a bar in Valle de Chalco, Mexico state.
  • The body of a 40 year-old-female teacher was found in a suitcase in Santa Catarina, Nuevo Leon state. The victim's feet and hands bound with tape.
  • A teacher's body was found in a trunk of a car in Acapulco, Guerrero state, with a message signed "Beltran Leyva."

Jan. 4

  • Inmates from one wing of a Tamaulipas state penitentiary attackers inmates in another wing, according to a government spokesman. Some 31 inmates were killed and 13 wounded.

Jan. 5

  • Mexican authorities announced the arrest of 15 municipal police officers in Ahome, Sinaloa state, for collusion with the Sinaloa Federation.
  • Mexican authorities arrested Baltazar "El Mataperros" Saucedo Estrada, a Zetas leader, in Monterrey, Nuevo Leon state. Saucedo reportedly was involved in the Casino Royale attack in Monterrey.

Jan. 6

  • Three bodies were found in a burnt car in the western portion of Michoacan state following multiple battles between Knights Templar and La Familia Michoacana in the area, according to state's Attorney General's Office.

Jan. 7

  • Omar "El Gato" Ortiz, a former soccer player, was arrested by Mexican authorities for his participation in a kidnapping ring. Ortiz was suspended from soccer in April 2010 for testing positive for steroids.

Jan. 8

  • A group of gunmen killed two men leaving a bar in Chihuahua city, Chihuahua state.
  • Mexican authorities discovered eight bodies in three unmarked graves near Linares, Nuevo Leon state, after complaints of foul odors were reported in the area.

Jan. 9

  • The bodies of 13 individuals were left at a gas station in Zitacuaro, Michoacan state. All of the bodies bore signs of torture and sustained gunshot wounds to the head. Two narcomantas reportedly addressed to "El Guero" and signed "FMZ" were left with the bodies.

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